When buying performance tires these days, there’s a caveat to keep in mind: They might be too good for you.
“I sometimes shake my head at people who have supersticky tires. They’re not learning much about driving,” says Ross Bentley, author of the Speed Secrets series of driver-training books.
It’s admittedly a first-world problem. Vast improvements in compounds and an arms race among automakers and tire manufacturers have delivered everything from Dodges with factory-tested “cheater slicks” to Hyundais on Nürburgring-ready Pirellis.
“You can get a Toyota Prius with a V-speed-rated tire” that can handle up to 149 mph, notes Woody Rogers, a specialist at . “That’s the bottom end of the absurd reality.”
Absurd and, for the most part, lovely. Performance tires not only offer better dry-weather traction than ever but also tend to demand fewer trade-offs, in terms of wet-weather drivability and overall refinement, than they did even a decade ago. Yet there’s still much to consider before springing for the stickiest rubber.
There’s cost. For instance, a set of tires retails for several hundred bucks more than milder Michelins like the . A small price, one might think, for all-conquering grip, especially if it’s rolled into a monthly car payment (Cup 2s are offered on the Corvette Grand Sport and other high-performance cars). But the soft-compound Cup 2s also have a much lower tread-wear rating than the 4S tires (180 versus 300), so you’ll be re-upping sooner. “Many consumers have become unwitting performance-tire buyers because of the original equipment on the vehicle,” Rogers says.
Retrofitting a car can bring hidden penalties, too. Automakers pick tires years before a model debuts and tweak everything from dampers to suspension pickup points around the rubber of their choosing. “It’s the most engineered single part on your entire car,” says Aaron Link, lead development engineer for Chevrolet Performance Cars. Slap on something more capable, and you increase the load—and wear and tear—on everything from tie-rods to the oil sump.
Even if nothing breaks, the car may not work as intended. Rogers remembers when Miata owners first experimented with race-compound tires in the Nineties and discovered the docile roadsters transformed into “oversteering machines.” Mazda engineers could have predicted this. During development, they’d learned that higher-performance tires borrowed from the RX-7 would cause the tail to snap. So they fitted tires with a softer side-wall and tread that would break early but more progressively.
Money can iron out most mechanical kinks. For Miatas, the trick is a larger front anti-roll bar. Harder to fix—or, for that matter, acknowledge—are the shortcomings of the driver. Although today’s performance tires are generally designed to be forgiving at the limit, that limit may come at a higher speed than a novice is prepared to handle. Bentley likens it to the paradox of all-wheel drive: “You’re farther in the bush when you get stuck.”
There’s also the danger of not getting much out of the experience. The nuances of driving, such as how to maximize traction when diving into a corner, will be lost on someone who can’t get their tires to break a sweat. “You’ll definitely learn more from a lower-performance tire,” Bentley says. “You feel the car move. You can sense the slip angles.”
No one’s advocating for squirmy whitewalls. Rather, it’s about assessing your objectives. If lower lap times or attacking on-ramps with impunity are what matter, by all means go for the high-test stuff. If, however, the focus is spirited back-road drives or getting the most out of driver-education track days, consider something a shelf or two down. You’ll still benefit from advancements across the board.
Rogers says today’s highest-performance all-seasons rival the traction of summer rubber offered decades ago on the E30 3-series. Mazda and Bridgestone have gone so far as to engineer a new (Japan-only) tire for the first-generation Miata that imitates the look and feel of the originals—low-speed slides and all—but with superior materials. Progress, in other words, is unavoidable, but it can be managed.